Discourse General Psychology philosophy of science

What Is Science? Science versus Scientism

The 2018 volume, On Hijacking Science, edited by Edwin E. Gantt and Richard N. Williams, provides a good starting point in thinking about general questions about science, e.g., What is science? What are the differences, if any, between science and scientism? Why are there tensions between a scientific (scientistic) worldview and those grounded in older cultural traditions, such as religions?

In this post I will only draw on three passages taken from the editors’ introductory chapter, the first of which responds to the first of those questions.

What Is Science?

A good working definition of ‘science’ is one that emphasizes that science is knowledge produced by observing and reporting the phenomena of the empirical world. In other words, science is a way of knowing that sticks to observation and the careful and faithful reporting of observable things in the world. The definition of ‘science’ really does not need to be more elaborate than this. Problems, however, often result when we attempt to make it more elaborate.

I like the above passage, partly because we can built on it in several different directions. For example, after reading the above passage, we might wonder whether experimentation, which assigns a more active role to scientists is compatible with the authors’ initial definition of scientist-as-observer. An experimenter doesn’t merely observe and report. She controls the situation of the experiment, divides conditions of observations into “controlled” and “experimental” and so forth, attempts to isolate phenomena, and looks for experimental “effects.” Can we include all of this in the model of scientist-as-observer?

We can think about experimentation as a tool for observation. Let’s clarify this with an example. Imagine standing in the corridor of a college building, in front of the doors of two lecture halls. Lectures are on-going in both halls, one about psychology and the other about mathematics. Both lectures end at the same time and you notice that the students coming out of the mathematics lecture appear happier than those coming out of the psychology lecture. What is it that you just observed? What is the phenomenon? You could jump to a conclusion in your description of the phenomenon, and say: “The math lecture has boosted the students’ mood,” or “The psychology lecture has hurt the students’ mood,” or “The math professor is more likable than the psychology professor.” These statements aren’t descriptive. They reflect a combination of interpretation and observation, with the interpretive move being more dominant.

We could try to stick to the facts, be as descriptive as possible, without attributing a causal connection between the mood of the students and the lectures. A “pure” description, however, might seem incomplete and some might say it demands further work. For instance, as Richard Williams writes, in Chapter 2:

[Carl] Hempel and [Paul] Oppenheim make it clear in their opening paragraph [of “Studies in the Logic of Explanation”] that science is the advanced form of rational inquiry: “To explain the phenomena in the world of our experience, to answer the question of ‘why?’ rather than only the question ‘what?’, is one of the foremost objectives of all rational inquiry; and especially, scientific research in its various branches strives to go beyond a mere description of its subject matter by providing an explanation of the phenomena it investigates.”

Thus, in our example of the two lecture halls, we might hypothesize (with caution and mindfulness of the fact that we are hypothesizing) that the professors’ style of teaching affects the students’ mood. Thinking outside the box, we consider that perhaps it isn’t the professors, but the different amount of light entering into the two lecture halls. Perhaps it is the topic that makes the difference, not the professors, with that particular psychology lecture failing to induce the same degree of joy in the audience, relative to that particular math lecture. Could any of this be tested and generalized, not only to the difference between the two lectures, but about a difference between the two courses or the two disciplines? We could start daydreaming now about possible experiments that try to isolate these factors and test one or several of these hypotheses. Our question is: Are we still observers if we conduct such experiments?

Just like how a visual illusion can be identified with further inspection (you realize that the Orbison illusion is, in fact, illusory if you separate the rectangular frame from the background image), a series of experiments can help us dissociate “apparent” phenomena from “genuine” phenomena. But this isn’t as straightforward in the case of our two lectures. Should we ask the two professors to switch places (to test the room/illumination hypothesis)? Should we train them to teach each others’ subjects (to test the professor-effect hypothesis)? Should we randomly assign students to sit in the math and the psychology lectures (to control for self-selection and individual differences)? Aside from the costs and inconveniences, it is easy to show that there is something artificial (if not impossible) in such interventions and experimental manipulations in the human/social domain. Among other shortcomings, this approach fails to appreciate that a unique combination of many factors–not only those selected by the social scientist–gives rise to the given phenomenon.

Let’s return to our question about the status of experimentation. Yes, experimentation can be a tool for observation and, in principle, it fits a model of scientist-as-observer. However, like any tool, it can be applied heavy-handedly, awkwardly, inappropriately, and in a way that distorts or diminishes the target of investigation. To emphasize observation is perhaps to encourage a passivity, a lightness of touch, a carefulness, that recognizes the possible fragility and transience of the phenomena. Rather than passivity, we might use “fidelity,” which signifies allowing the phenomena to present itself as what it is and how it is. To insist on the application of experimentation, at the cost of sacrificing the phenomena, would be an instance of scientism. Again, from the Editors’ introduction:

Usually, the term ‘scientism’ is employed as a criticism of an intellectual or philosophical position. Interestingly, in recent years some intellectuals have embraced the term ‘scientism’ as a positive label for their intellectual positions (see, e.g., Pinker, 2013). As an ‘ism’, scientism denotes an extreme position, one in which the implication is that one has gone beyond mere ‘science’ to something else, something ideological.

I will continue this discussion in a later post. If you’d like to read my review and summary of the book, On Hijacking Science, here is the link.

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